Your nanny calls in sick, but that report has to be on the president's desk at 9 a.m. What do you do?
Joyce Phillips remembers what it used to be like trying to find someone to take her young daughter on the days her regular child-care arrangement fell apart. Without family nearby, she relied on neighbours and close friends, begging them to take her child for the day so she could commute into New York from her home in Connecticut.
"This 'pretty please and thank you' -- you feel guilty about it all the time," says the executive vice-president of human resources for Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce from her Toronto office. (Ms. Phillips maintains offices in both New York and Toronto.)
Asked to describe the experience, she uses one word: "stressful."
But feeling guilt and stress aren't the only consequences working parents experience when their regular child-care situation gets turned on its axis. When the nanny comes down with the flu, grandma gets called in for jury duty or the weather turns foul and school is suddenly closed, working parents have to find backup care fast -- or not go in to work at all. Absenteeism because of personal or family responsibilities is two to three times higher among employees with preschool children, says Celia Moore, principal of Toronto-based consultancy Work-Life Harmony Enterprises.
"People are struggling so intensely with work-life balance issues right now. They have all these balls in the air. They go to work. They have kids. And if one ball falls, the whole thing collapses," she says.
Some companies are turning to corporate-sponsored backup child care as a solution.
CIBC, for instance, plans this fall to open its first backup child-care centre in Toronto's labyrinth of downtown financial buildings. The centre, in Commerce Court, will be the first of its kind in Canada, designed specifically to offer backup emergency care to CIBC employees with children from three months to 13 years old. It will be run by Boston-based ChildrenFirst Inc., a 10-year-old company with 30 centres scattered across the United States.
CIBC has already had a taste of how well backup child care can work. Its New York employees have been dropping their kids off at the ChildrenFirst centres in Manhattan since February, 2001.
And when senior executives started hearing how much employees -- both with and without children -- liked the benefit, they convinced ChildrenFirst to expand north.
Although a corporate child-care centre devoted entirely to backup care will be unique in Canada, short-term emergency care as a concept is not. VanCity Credit Union and HSBC Bank of Canada purchased a single emergency space at a community centre near their offices in Vancouver. The lone space is snatched up on a first come, first served basis.
IBM Canada Ltd. also runs an on-site child-care centre at its headquarters in Markham, Ont. While backup care is not its main function -- most children who are enrolled in the centre are there every day -- there are some spaces for emergency care, just in case. Ilene Hoffer, director of public affairs for Boston-based Bright Horizons, the company that runs the IBM centre, says offering even a few backup spaces can mean everything to stressed-out, frazzled employees.
"Suddenly they have a great option when previously they had no option," she says.
Perhaps the oldest emergency child-care program is one run out of Ottawa. The Short Term Child Care Program, run by Andrew Fleck Child Care Services, has been in business for over a decade. At one time the government subsidized the program, but when that money ran out, area companies and unions, ranging from Canada Post to the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, developed a consortium.
The consortium model means many companies access the emergency care services so no one organization foots the entire bill.
Some organizations subsidize the service so employees pay nothing, but many require the employee to pay a $9.50 hourly fee.
ChildrenFirst runs some of its U.S. centres using the consortium model, and plans to do so in Canada as well. Member firms with 200 to 500 employees would be charged between $33,000 and $37,000 a year to reserve a single emergency childcare space under the consortium model, the company says. Most ChildrenFirst corporate clients pay for the child-care services outright so their employees will be more likely to use them.
While the benefits to the employee are obvious, many employers concerned with their return on investment have to be convinced that offering backup child care, rather than primary child care, is the way to go.
Beyond boosting employee loyalty, slashing absenteeism and increasing productivity, backup care -- unlike regular on-site daycare -- benefits all employees and not just the select few that can get a spot, says Rosemary Jordano, chief executive officer and founder of ChildrenFirst.
Up to 3,000 of CIBC's approximately 4,000 Toronto employees with children under 13 years of age can register with a backup program.
Backup care also requires less space, which is especially important when real estate is at a premium.
The CIBC centre will initially be able to take 30 children, with plans to expand to 40 within six months of it opening.
Capital costs and liability costs are handled by ChildrenFirst. After that, CIBC buys memberships based on the number of days of child care per year. Ms. Phillips said CIBC will be paying "hundreds of thousands of dollars" for the service each year, adding that CIBC believes that the money they'll be saving in terms of absenteeism and productivity will mean the fee will pay for itself.
Employees without kids benefit as well, says Ms. Moore. "It allows childless employees to know that their co-workers with children are going to be there, are not going to be stressed and are not going to be concerned with, 'Oh my God, what happens if my caregiver's jury duty lasts another three days?' "
When CIBC's new backup child-care centre opens, all CIBC employees will be encouraged to check it out, meet the staff and register their kids. Ms. Phillips says the centre will add spaces if it's more popular than expected.
Ms. Phillips hopes the pilot project will be successful, so more centres can open across the country and all CIBC employees can access backup care.
"I know it sounds like motherhood and apple pie, but these kinds of actions make employees feel as though you're making a difference for them," she says.
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